Avoiding Common Punctuation Errors Pt 7: Apostrophes

Sometimes people underrate the importance of punctuation. If your work is full of errors, you risk not only confusing and/or annoying your readers, but you also risk losing credibility. Punctuation errors are bad enough in a novel or a short story, but if you're writing non-fiction, your readers may think, “Hmm...if this guy can't put apostrophes in the right place, can I really trust his expertise in the subject matter?” This is something you do not want your readers to think.

Recently I read an independently published non-fiction book plagued with so many apostrophe errors that the author unwittingly inspired today's post. Here are the main types of errors he made, over and over again:

1) Wrong: His mothers fears
Right: His mother's fears

If you're showing possession, you need that apostrophe. Otherwise is looks like a plural. This would be doubly confusing if it were “His mothers fear” because that reads like he has two mothers and they both fear something. It's not until the next word that the reader is jarred into the intended meaning: “His mothers fear was made reality.” Oh...his mother (or mothers, we're still not sure because it's not punctuated correctly) had a fear and it came true.

2) Wrong: Humanities primal urges. Also would be wrong: Humanitie's primal urges.
Right: Humanity's primal urges

When a word ends in y, and you want to make it PLURAL, you change the y to i and add es. But when you want to make it POSSESSIVE, you do not change the y. Just add apostrophe s. The city's streets are clean. Not many cities are so clean.

3) Wrong: A process which Heracles labours are forcing him to undergo.
Right: Heracles' labours... OR Heracles's labours

The correct way to punctuate names and singular nouns that end in s is debatable, and depends on which style guide you use, though nowadays most lean toward adding the apostrophe s instead of just the apostrophe. Charles's camera. The bus's back tires. But of course, if the noun is plural, you just add the apostrophe. The girls' playhouse (there are at least two girls).

4) Wrong: The sea's were troubled.
Right: The seas were troubled.

It's a plural noun. The apostrophe has no place here. Exceptions may be made (depending on which style guide you follow) for acronyms, years, and other strange cases. Some people write CD's, DVD's, etc. when they mean multiple CDs or DVDs. They write the 1980's when referring to the decade, instead of the 1980s. I personally think this is imprecise and potentially confusing, but it's common and often considered acceptable. You should use an apostrophe in plurals of some one-letter words that would be confused with other words if you didn't add the apostrophe. So, for example, you can write “I replaced all the a's with i's in my secret message.” These a's and i's are plural, not possessive, and would generally not use apostrophes, but if you don't add the apostrophe, you get this: “I replaced all the as with is in the secret message.”

5) Wrong: Helios see's all things.
Right: Helios sees all things.

Never put an apostrophe s in a verb UNLESS you're making a contraction with is or has (he's tired, she's singing, Mary's awake, the cat's never caught a bird before, the world's been going downhill..) Otherwise, just don't do it. Please. A regular s is sufficient. Helios sees. Helios hears. Helios knows.

6) Wrong: It's muscles flexed.
Right: Its muscles flexed.

This is a very, very, very common error. It's is a contraction of it and is (It's hot in here). Its is the possessive of it (This book is complicated. Its appendix of characters is twenty-seven pages long.). I think most of us know this, but it's easy to make the error in haste or with bad typing and then not catch it later because we know what it's supposed to say, so our brain skips over the error. If you're worried about it, there's a long, boring solution: use the find feature on your word processor to hunt down every example of both it's and its in your manuscript and make sure they're all right. While you're at it, check you're and your.

A few other things to remember:

“My parents' house is old” means that the house belongs to both your parents.
“My parent's house is old “ means that the house belongs to one of your parents (and for some reason you call this person your parent instead of your mom or dad.)

Let's is not the same as lets
Let's go swimming this afternoon. Mom never lets me go swimming.

Who's is not the same as whose
Who's going to cook tonight? Whose carrots are these?

They're is not the same as their
They're going to cook tonight? But their carrots are old.

You're is not the same as your
You're invited. Your invitation got lost in the mail.

We're is not the same as were and he's is not the same as his. Yes, these last ones should be obvious, but I've seen the mistakes in work people felt ready to publish.

The problem with these types of errors is that spell checker will never find them. Your grammar checker won't help a lot either. You have a sacred duty to your readers to find somebody (yes, an actual person, and preferably several of them) that will be able to hunt down and correct errors like this after you do your best to correct them yourself.

Happy hunting.

For more punctuation help, see my other posts:
Avoiding Common Punctuation Errors Pt 1:  Commas Save Lives; the Vocative Comma
Avoiding Common Punctuation Errors Pt 2:  Commas and Periods in Dialogue
Avoiding Common Punctuation Errors Pt 3:  Commas with Participial Phrases
Avoiding Common Punctuation Errors Pt 4:  The Mysterious Case of the Missing Question Mark
Avoiding Common Punctuation Errors Pt 5:  Adjectives with Commas
Avoiding Common Punctuation Errors Pt 6:  Hyphens in Compound Adjectives


Linda Wilson said...

This post is such fun, thank you, Melinda. In a copy-editing course I took our instructor warned us that we'd never read anything the same again. She was so right. I find errors like these all the time. My favorite in your post is the tattoo! Kind of a permanent reflection of the tattoo artist's knowledge of grammar (or lack thereof)!

Karen Cioffi said...

What great tips on avoiding punctuation errors in our writing. I love the tattoo image. That poor woman!
Thank for sharing, Melinda!

Carolyn Howard-Johnson said...

I agree! This apostrophe thing is the most irritating of errors that people make – – whether unknowingly or by accident. I cover this punctuation error in my book, The Frugal Editor, along with a few overused style choices that are just as annoying.

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